Late in October, the Indian cabinet, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, made a final decision to support the Iranian Chabahar port project on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Although the news of this decision was lost to a world focused on elections and the Ebola pandemic, it remains a significant development in the context of Asian security, and embodies a confident new direction in Indian foreign policy. It also provides the West with a trustworthy partner to help with negotiations with Iran.
The much-touted port project is located in Sistan and Baluchestan, Iran’s restive border province that abuts Pakistan in the south-east of the country. Not even a hundred kilometers separate Chabahar from Gwadar, another mega port project located in Pakistan’s Baluchistan region, which was completed in 2006 with Chinese support. The Pakistani government was keen to develop an outlet for Baluchistan’s abundant resources and find an alternative to Karachi, its largest port, which is located tantalizingly close to Indian territory. Chabahar fulfills similar ambitions for Iran, as it seeks to develop an alternative channel to Bandar Abbas and its other major ports that line the Straits of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf – narrow waterways that are easily blocked – with its strategic location on the tip of the Indian Ocean. By developing the port, and the transport infrastructure that connects it, Iran hopes to quell the unrest in Sistan and Baluchestan with development and, more importantly, offer another trade route to access landlocked Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia.
Chabahar lies eight hundred kilometers from Zaranj, the Afghan border city that provides access to the rest of the country. In 2009, India completed work on the Zaranj Delaram road, which connects Zaranj on the country’s western margins to the garland shaped Highway A01, which drapes the country and links its major cities to the capital Kabul, and in turn forms part of the wider Asian highway project, feeding into border roads that link Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. For India, this is all part of the bigger picture as it seeks an alternative route to Afghanistan and Central Asia that circumvents Pakistan, its tetchy neighbor, which has thrown a spanner in India’s aims to engage with the region further by refusing or limiting access for trade to and from India through its borders. The curse of geography leaves India with only a theoretical border in Kashmir with Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor, yet that part of Kashmir remains in Pakistan’s hands across the Line of Control. Chabahar, only a day’s sail from western Indian ports, is slowly emerging as the only viable route for India to ramp up its trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia – economic activity that it views as a necessary step to maintain the overall security of the region and its interests there.
Iran and India see eye to eye on this and many other things. India, for long Iran’s trusted partner in the region, is the second largest buyer of Iranian oil. Its appetite for energy is insatiable, and will only continue to grow as the economy perks up and returns to pre-financial crisis growth rates. It has had a relatively stable and healthy relationship with Iran both before and after the Islamic Revolution, with only the occasional hiccup, such as when India voted against the Iranian nuclear program at a resolution passed at the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2009.
In Afghanistan, both India and Iran supported the Tajik-led Northern Alliance in the decades of civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, and, in a sense, were both on the losing side, when the Pakistan-backed Taliban emerged in power at the end of the struggle. The Taliban was inimical to the interests of India and Iran and it showed: Iran and the Taliban nearly fought a war in 1998 over the killing of Iranian diplomats and journalists in the Taliban’s capture of Mazar-i-Sharif. India, too, suffered as the Taliban-led Afghanistan proved a fertile breeding ground for anti-India jihadist groups who used the Pashtun heartlands as a base for terror attacks in Kashmir and other parts of India.
Reinforcing its commitment to the Chabahar project, the Indian government announced a strategic investment plan to convert berths in the port into a container and multi-purpose cargo terminal. While the initial commitment of $85 million remains small, it signifies an end to the policy paralysis and lack of decision making that plagued Indian foreign and trade policy in the dying months of the previous government. If things go well, and India is able to leverage its investment to boost trade and send the supplies and aid it has promised the Afghan government, it is reasonable to assume that India will be willing to make an increased commitment to Chabahar, similar to the Chinese investment in Gwadar, in the future. Iran’s offer to make the province a free-trade zone and offer India preferential tariffs for its exports en route to Afghanistan and Central Asia is also a game-changer and bodes well for the development of Chabahar.
As the United States and the International Security Assistance Force begin their departure from Afghanistan, the country remains in a precarious situation, with a divisive presidential election reinforcing ethno-linguistic divisions and the re-emergence of an increasingly confident Taliban, and its Haqqani Network ally. India, Iran, and the West share many of the same concerns that are premised on maintaining Afghan unity and preventing the country from regressing into a 1990s-style calculus, pitting groups against each other on ethnic, linguistic, and religious lines. The emergence, too, of the Islamic State (IS) on Iran’s western border in Iraq and the Taliban’s alleged readiness to work with the IS in Afghanistan and Pakistan is reminiscent of its tie-up with Al Qaeda and a scenario that Iran, India, and the West would be desperate to avoid.
A détente between Iran and the West, at a time when geopolitical tensions in West and South Asia are at a peak, is perhaps too much to expect. But with the West finding itself being sucked into conflict zones and situations all over the region, it would make sense to try and take forward a meaningful dialogue with Iran, one that goes beyond the nuclear issue that seems to have tied both sides down. With Iran turning down the rhetoric a notch since the arrival of President Hassan Rouhani, perhaps this is a golden opportunity for the West and Iran to engage with each other, with a more confident India that is trusted by both sides serving as interlocutor.
Hrishabh Sandilya is a doctoral candidate and lecturer on South Asian Politics at Charles University in Prague, and a visiting fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect those of IDSA.